Six Simple Rules (review)

The book Six Simple Rules by Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman challenges all of management theory which it condenses to hard and soft approaches: The "hard approach" tries to increase productivity by adding more rules which makes people disengaged. The "soft approach" tries to make people more engaged with mindset events which lowers productivity (books like Culture Code fall into this category, as does the quest for psychological safety). This leads to a vicious cycle of lower and lower productivity and engagement. The impulse which drives the cycle is the increasing complexity of business which they measure through an increased number of requirements for business units in the last decades.

Fortunately, our saviors provide a solution which targets neither rules nor mindset. Instead they suggest to manage complexity through autonomy and cooperation. The method has three steps:

  1. Use pain points to discover interdependencies and cooperation needs.
  2. Discover obstacles to cooperation.
  3. Capture the benefits of cooperation.

The underlying premise is that all problems are cooperation problems. Working in a corporation, I consider that reasonable lens. At least, it isn't worse than other methods like Agile or Big Data. A lot of the method involves listening to people, so the danger that people apply this mindlessly is rather low.

The first step consists of asking people questions like

The second step is where you sit down, analyze all the input you got, and create a model of the organization. You have people describing their desires about each other cooperating. How does this web of relationships describe the current performance of the organization and the pain points you want to fix? Model the context of each entity (person, role, sub-organization, etc) in terms of goals (what they strive for), resources (what they use to achieve their goals), and constraints (what hinders them to achieve their goals). Be careful here!

While the book does not mention systems thinking or anything similar, this modelling above sounds like it. Its notion of goals, resources, and constraints is different to the other models I've seen though. While I've yet to try it in practice, it feels promising to me to identify concrete leverage points. This modelling approach is my biggest takeaway from the book.

The title of the book "Six Simple Rules" comes into play in the third step. Once you know what you want to change, the rules guide you how to change the organization.

  1. Understand what your people do. This should have happened in the first two steps already. Nevertheless, look at your model of goals, resources, and constraints and ask yourself: Is the behavior of the people rational? If not then you do not understand your people sufficiently enough.
  2. Reinforce integrators, which are the people who actually drive the cooperation. To identify them, look for emotionally loaded relationships: If integrators have too much power, they shift the load unto others and are hated. If integrators have too little power, they complain a lot.
  3. Give people power. The book suggests to create new power instead of shifting it. That part I don't buy. The power in an organization for me is equivalent to the amount of man-hours people work there. That is the duration where an organization can determine the behavior. That is a fixed sum and you cannot create more out of thin air. Sure, you can hire people. The book is not about hiring at all though. Anyways, the gist seems to be to create more options for people to influence each other.
  4. Increase reciprocity. Cooperation should be two-sided, so avoid one-sided relationships. That can imply to make tasks more ambiguous but the book considers this good, because it increases the negotiate space of cooperation.
  5. Extend the shadow of the future. Programmers would describe it as "eat your own dogfood." People should experience the effect of their decisions themselves instead of off-loading it to others.
  6. Reward those who cooperate. Here the book discusses risk because cooperation enables risk-taking. Only in a cooperative organization it makes sense for people to take risks because they have a safety net. Another point is that managers should reject escalations to make people cooperate instead.

Why are those rules called "simple"? On the one hand, the rules themselves are simple (but not easy!). On the other hand, the organization is supposed to become simpler because we don't use the "hard approach" of adding more rules and processes. I disagree with that because the rules above add additional relations which also makes an organization more complex. An organization should be as complex as the market it operates in, so a certain complexity is essential. With more power comes more responsibility for each person, so the complexity added here appears as cognitive load. At some point, additional specialized roles become necessary and this is the opposite of what this book advises. So there must be a counter-force which is not considered in the book. At the very end, it appeals

To have an authentic management presence, you have to regain direct knowledge of operations [...] You do not have to live in a world of abstractions. You need not spend your time wracking your brains about how best to reshuffle the boxes or draw the lines in the org chart. You can deal with the real content of the work.

Abstraction is how we deal with complexity. Our human brains chunk things together until there is only a manageable amount of things left. That is the counter-force. It isn't about reducing complexity, it is about different kinds of complexity. This book suggests to avoid or lower process-complexity and increase social-complexity instead. Negotiation, status signaling, and respect is a better fit for human beings than processes and rules. The book High Output Management argues why a matrix organization is inevitable. Looking deeper, we could also phrase it as: A single-hierarchy organization requires too much process-complexity, so we use a dual-hierarchy approach and trade it for social-complexity. It gives people more autonomy and enables more cooperation.

Anyways, my gut says that for most organizations the direction described in the book is the relevant one. For anybody who wants to change an organization, I recommend the book for its ideas which were not intuitive to me.

The book suggests that implementing the changes should be easy. I'd rather say it is out of scope and point to Switch or The Heart of Change. The book Turn the Ship Around! also advertises empowerment.

A book about improving organizations without introducing more rules or changing mindsets.